The business universe is full of ideas and their implementations. No business in the history of mankind has become vanguard without proper execution by the ones who portended the far stretched future of possibilities filled with uncertainty. While facing the storms of challenges, all of the business owners had ideas that kept them standing their ground, foreseeing a whole new world of possibilities where their product is being sought by the consumers.
The Product Owner is also a project’s key stakeholder who is responsible for how the outcome is shaped from a project. He/she is well equipped with a vision of the product that is to be fashioned and the same vision is delivered to the team while setting a milestone of the Product’s journey from ideas to implementations and finally to the launch. We will learn about types of product owners in this article. It explains how the roles differ and relate to one another, as well as how to apply them effectively.
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The Product Owner role is an integral part of agile development, more categorically, a role within a Scrum team. There are multiple types of product owners in the industry. These types are determined by the responsibilities owned by these Product Owners towards the product. To understand these types, let us first understand the responsibilities.
Product Owner Responsibilities
The Product Owner is directly accountable for augmenting the value of the product ensuing from the work of the Scrum Team since he/she not only understands the core of the product but is also the liaison or face of the user. Product Owners can help the team to assess risks, deliberate on the latest available technology, trade-offs with budget and time considerations. The Product Owner is responsible for:
- Defining The Product Vision – Being the face of the user, a Product Owner is expected to envisage the product vision so that the development team can conceptualize the user needs and the expected outcomes of a product.
- Developing And Explicitly Communicating the Product Goal – Product Owners become the experts and guardians of the Product, define its goal, and facilitate communications, ensuring every team member is on the same page.
- Managing The Product Backlog – In an agile world, since the requirements are dynamic, the product backlog items might require frequent movements to accommodate constantly changing priorities. Hence, the crucial responsibility of a Product Owner is product backlog management. This responsibility encompasses the following:
- Creating and disseminating vital information on Product Backlog items
- Prioritizing and stacking Product Backlog items
- Confirming that the Product Backlog is well defined, transparent, and clear
Despite clearly defined responsibilities, the Product Owner’s role is still riddled with misunderstandings. It’s not infrequent to meet someone who is a Product Owner, yet does not own the entire product but only some product details or a few features. In parallel, one may often encounter types of product owners who are managing an entire portfolio of products rather than owning or managing just one. In some organizations, the ‘Project Managers’ from the Waterfall approach became Product Owners when the approach changed to agile; and in some places, business analysts are referred to as Product Owners. Again, in a few recently turned Agile firms, Product Owners are rather designated as product managers (perhaps to latch on to the word ‘manager’ since the owner might seem a demotion) although product manager is another function beyond and above product owner.
It has multiple responsibilities like market study, research, strategic planning, product operations, post-launch analysis, etc. The major reason for the confusion around Product Owner is because of a very common misconception that has hardly been clarified to date and that is – Product Owner is a role and not a designation that is given to a person who manages the project, product, or a portfolio in a company. Unless the role is separated from the job designation, the confusion will likely always lurk around.
Role Of Project Owner in Start Up
In a start-up, the Product Owner might have all of these responsibilities; and in all practical senses, they might be doing the role of a Product Manager. But when you scale the company, the teams, and the stakeholders, the role of a Product Owner tends to digress from what they are supposed to do. As the teams grow and do a mixture of Agile with Waterfall or other techniques, the Product Owner starts losing responsibilities as well as the power to make business decisions that benefit the customer, and their focus shifts much more to stakeholder management, cross-team dependencies, and managing their team’s backlog. This is quite similar to the Product Management Role.
The Product Owner role is relevant only within the scrum. If you’re taking scrum and agile out of your development process then the role of the Product Owner doesn’t exist. So, If you are a Product Manager and your team is using scrum, you are most likely also a Product Owner. If your team is not using Scrum or any other agile framework, you are still a Product or Project Manager. The Product Manager’s job does not lean on scrum, but the ROLE of a Product Owner does depend on scrum.
This raises questions such as,
“Can one be a Product Owner and not a Project Manager?”
- In agile environment, Product Owner is a role, not a designated job. If you’re working on various projects for a product’s growth, you can have a designation as project Manager but your role will still be of a Product owner in agile. Also, project managers in waterfall approach are not same as product owners in agile as the roles and responsibilities of both are quite distinct. One must avoid using them interchangeably.
“Is it possible to be a Product Owner then switch to being a Product Manager?”
- Yes, in the concrete, you can be anything else and then become a Product Manager. Being a Product Owner equips you with exposure and experience in managing backlogs, customer requests, and working with development teams. It is just one of the many ways that you can get into Product Management.
In my experience as a Product Owner, I have mostly come across various roles that a Product Owner does in his/her organizations; some of which are true to their definition while some are not.
Types Of Product Owners
Let’s look at the difference in types of product owners and roles as well as how closely they are related. The salient difference will help everyone to reflect on which bracket they hold by and how constructively they can apply the knowledge in their respective areas of work.
Scrum Product Owner
This is the original role. He/she owns the product, an asset that creates value for a group of users and business, in its entirety and is responsible for maximizing the value that the product creates. The phrase “owning the product in its entirety” is the key here. To understand it better, we can consider an analogy of a “news mobile app”. The app is a product whereas the ability to log in, read a news article, search a piece of news, and successfully navigate from one article to another is the various features in the app. A Scrum Product Owner will own the entire news app inclusive of all its features and not just one of its features. When a person lacks ownership and management of the complete product, referring to him/her as a Product Owner is incorrect for the following reasons:
- When someone owns just a part of the product, he/she cannot maximize the product’s value or achieve the product’s vision since he/she may not be responsible for the same. Their area of expertise is just a feature in the product and not the overall product on its own.
- The individual who handles only a feature or a group of features in a product lacks both the decision-making authority as well as skillsets.
We may have rarely come across such a role or a designation, however, a lot of types of product owners are into a feature owner role, irrespective of whether or not they are recognized intrinsically. The best example that I can think of is from my organization where a Product Owner leads a team of several feature owners who are responsible for inflating the value of the feature owned by them while ensuring that it does not hamper the overall value creation of the product.
I find it a good technique and the reason is simple: each of these feature owners, while describing their functionality, interacting with development teams, researching the market conditions, discovering the best tactics for that feature’s growth, and evaluating data & feedback ensures that each feature gets equal importance and have a competitive advantage. They are collaboratively enhancing or creating a larger product as members of a product team. All these feature owners are led by the Scrum Product Owner who oversees their work, guides them to make the right product decisions, the right product strategy, and also ensures that all their work fits fine in an actionable roadmap envisioned by him/her.
Similar to the feature-owner role, there may be another role that looks after an architectural building block such as a user interface layer, APIs, and a service that requires in-depth technical expertise. Since they are not responsible for a feature but a component that may affect a group of features or form a service layer for the entire application, they can be termed as Component Owners. They too are part of the same Product team and are led by the Scrum Product Owner. Just like Feature Owners, their role also includes maximizing the value of the components.
Platform and Portfolio Owners
As there are Component Owners, there are owners of a Platform too. A platform is a collection of digital assets used by several products. For example, Microsoft suite is a platform (collection of products), and each of MS Word, MS Excel, MS Outlook are its products. The core responsibility of a Platform Owner is the same as the Scrum Product Owner with a key difference; instead of managing a product, he/she owns the platform by maximizing the value that the platform devises such as narrowing the time-to-market as well as the development cost of the products built on it. Basically, for a Platform Owner, the platform managed by him can be considered as the product. The Platform Owner must be technically adept on the platform, to communicate effectively with the users that are the members of the product team who build their products using the platform.
Just like platform owners, there is a separate role that can be termed as the Portfolio Owners. These owners have a bigger responsibility of managing not only a product but also a group of them due to which they are commonly called Product Portfolio Manager. Their role requires them to not only actively manage the portfolio but also collaborate with the Product Owners who manage the products within the portfolio. Since they are responsible for a group of products, they have to ensure that the individual product strategies and the roadmaps are in sync and a common user experience is generated across various products.
This entails handling dependencies, aligning major releases, not muddling up priorities, and not giving importance to one product over the other. Anyone who carries the beneficial experience and exposure of having managed individual products can step up to this role. Often a senior Product Manager or Owner is suitable to manage a group of similar products catering to different users. Portfolio Owner has bigger responsibilities. One can relate a portfolio manager to a Program Manager at a large size business organization. For small to mid-size organizations usually, the CEO or managing directors play this role.
SAFe Product Owner
While all the roles discussed so far are connected to the types of product owners like Scrum Product Owner, the SAFe Product Owners are quite distinct. SAFe is a framework used in scaled agile projects and is practiced at the enterprise level. As per the Agile scaling framework, the SAFe Product Owners do not look after the entire product but only the tactical part of it such as defining the product details, user stories, and interacting with one or more development teams.
They are NOT focused on the enactment of the product strategies which are defined by another role called SAFe Product Manager. So, the full heap product ownership is bifurcated into – strategic and tactics – The SAFe Product Owners deal with the tactic maneuvers while the SAFe Product Managers are adroit in their role. This role-splitting action works best when the product is stable but may lack efficiency when the product is in its budding stage. The reason is this: when there are uncertainties that affect the product strategies, having another role to manage the tactics will not lead to an efficient outcome. In this case, having an individual own the product and develop it from scratch i.e., from the product’s vision to its mission is recommended.
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Each role described above is a part of the product management role and anybody performing any one of the roles takes up the ownership. No role is superior or inferior to each other and every role is rewarding and invigorating. The only factor that differs significantly in each role is the ownership scope and the skills required for ensuring success. Any product role provides a great opportunity to create value for the users and the business; is aimed at ensuring the progress of the product. What truly matters is not the job titles but what value we provide to the users and our businesses. Ultimately, the pursuit of every product role is aimed at doing well and creating the best product for their users.